Lessons from Middle English: ' Tis a Gift to Be Simple

Simple ballads and lyrics surviving from Medieval literature might at first glance seem inferior to the sophisticated imagery and complicated sentence structure of modern works. We might assume their authors remained anonymous because the pieces were too elementary to inspire the pride of authorship. But the oldest surviving pieces from Middle English (before colonization began to develop divergent forms of the language) had to be understood at a single hearing; obscure references would have been lost when the words rattled by without time for study and reflection. Our language had its birth in an oral tradition, and the purpose of its literature was different from what we sometimes have in modern times. The inspiration was not necessarily inferior or superior to that of modern works, and we cannot safely assume the feelings which sought expression then were either simpler or more complex than our own.
"Sumer is i-cumen in"
Spring has come in
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Grows the seed and blooms
the meadow
And the woods springs now
Sing, cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The calf lows after the cow
The bull
leaps, the buck leaps, twisting.
Merrily sing, cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo,
Well sing you, cuckoo.
Nor cease you ever now!
Translated by Craig E. Bertolet

As a matter of fact, there may be lessons to learn from the apparent simplicity of Middle English pieces. While today we might feel it is acceptable to layer our imagery past the point of immediate recognition and at the same time use obscure references which may not be understood without deeper study, but how many of these images and references are really ever understood or appreciated by anyone but the most dedicated critics or scholars? If we paint a house red, does it really matter if there are layers of green and blue underneath? At some point our “sophistication” goes so deep it loses the practicality, and a piece of writing becomes too self absorbed to truly communicate.
Today, a written piece can be printed, read aloud and recorded, saved in a digital file, and various combinations of these formats. Because of this, it can be read, re-read, listened to multiple times, and pondered. In Medieval times, a bard or balladeer might perform a piece only once for a particular audience; anything that wasn’t heard or understood the first time wasn’t going to be heard or understood later. But in spite of the many opportunities we have these days to come back to a text, how often do we really do so? Unless we have some specific reason for deeper study, don’t we usually keep our first impression of a piece and never seek to look any deeper?
If that is true, then perhaps we can learn a lesson from the simple straightforwardness of Middle English literature. Its apparent lack of sophistication is by design, and should not be confused with a lack of merit. These pieces were written with the end in mind, and that end was always communication. If a modern work wishes to communicate, then simplicity might be a welcome means to that end.

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